Salar de Uyuni – Day Two (2)

The second day took us into wild places in the Andean mountains, reaching altitudes of up to 5000 meters in our Toyota Landcruiser 4wd where seven of us managed to fit in quite comfortably. During the second day we saw lakes filled with flamingos, a smaller type of llama called a vicuña, and other wild animals, plus one of the lakes was a blood-red colour.

San Pedro town
Looking down over San Pedro de Quemaz from the burned ruins.

A Smaller Salt Lake
After waking at 6.30am and enjoying a cooked breakfast, we pack up the Landcruiser and take off from our hotel in San Pedro de Quemaz. Early in the morning, while the sun was still rising, I climbed up into the area of the burned ruins. Here there were rock walled pens containing very sleepy llamas and dozens of houses that had been left as they were after being burnt.

One of the llamas that were awake.

We head out along a sandy road that shows deep mud ruts in places, a testimony to the toughness of this land during times of rain. Wilson, our driver, confirms this by explaining that all drivers travel in packs of at least three vehicles during the wet so they can help each other when they get into trouble.

long straight road
The long straight road out of San Pedro de Quemaz.

rocks everywhere
Driving through rocky grounds.

Soon we are driving between clusters of rock poking up out of the sandy grounds, and climbing over a small hill. As we reach the top of this hill, before us lies another salt lake. Salar de Chiguana is a smaller salt lake that is very thin on the surface with salt that cannot be harvested. Unlike the Salar de Uyuni which goes down well over 10 meters in some places, this was only inches deep in the deepest parts.

thin salt lake
The dirty tracks show just how shallow the salt in this lake is.

jeep driving on road
Continuing the journey toward the next salt lake.

Bolivian Army Post
As we pass through the Salar de Chiguana, we pass by a Bolivian army post where they check on all cars passing through for papers. The tour companies are able to pass through freely but private vehicles all need to stop there first, and are checked through powerful binoculars and intercepted if they do not stop.

army post
The distant buildings represent the Bolivian army post.

This army post is known to be a difficult place to live. The government has basically forgotten about them and does not often provide supplies, so those that live there head into the mountains and hunt llama for food to eat. Most postings to this place are only for a number of months, so it is considered more of a place for training than a problem.

mirror view of salt lake
From a distance the salt lake looks a lot saltier than it is.

Railway To Chile
Towards the other side of the salt lake we cross over a railway line. This line goes right past the army post and continues on to the township of Calama in Chile.

low railway bridge
This railway line continues on to Calama in Chile.

We stop here for a moments rest, enjoying the views of the nearby mountain ranges and the way the railway line simply disappears into nothingness in the distance as its straight lines fade away.

view down tracks
Looking down the rails towards the army post in the distance.

Leaving the Salt Lake
Just before we leave the Salar, a group of vicuñas run past us, frightened of our presence. Ironically, these animals are completely protected and should have nothing to fear from people. Perhaps they are still hunted on the sly by some desperate people.

Vicuñas racing over the salt plain, scared by our jeep.

In leaving the Salar the road becomes rougher and rocky and we start to climb. All around us are amazing mountains, some reaching so high as to have a permanent covering of snow upon their peaks. One of the mountains is an active volcano, called Volcan Ollague, which has smoke pouring out of the side of its peak.

volcan ollague
Volcan Ollague still venting on the far side on the left.

Volcan Ollague
Most of the mountains around this area are some form of volcano, and contain a lot of sulphur. This sulphur is still mined today, and virtually all mountains show the scars of roads zigzagging their way up to the mines that were or still are in operation there. Volcan Ollague is no different and has a number of active mines still extracting sulphur from its stores.

volcano lookout
Looking over the lookout towards Volcano Ollague.

This huge volcano, with its smoking vent, divides the two countries of Bolivia and Chile, with the smoking part lying on the Chilean side of the mountain. To see it better we continued on until reaching what is known as the Volcan Mirador (Volcano Lookout), and joined two other jeep loads of people.

lookout with three jeeps
We are the third tour group to arrive at the lookout.

The lookout was on top of a section of rock which was split by a road that passed through it. While at this lookout we saw two large trucks hauling some very heavy gear from the sulphur mines, creating great plumes of dust behind them in this super-dry climate and the sandy, dusty roads.

road through crevase
Looking through a crevasse at the road that splits the lookout into two parts.

Getting Out and Walking
From this lookout we travel only a short time before pulling off what seems like the main road and winding our way through various tracks until we start to climb once again. This time the road is even worse than before, with big boulders and washouts in the road causing the Landcruiser to lurch violently from side to side.

tracks through the wild
All roads lead to Rome, and all of these trails lead to the same place too.

Landrover stopped
Wilson stops at the only smooth section of road so we can get out.

When Wilson stops the vehicle and tells us that we can walk if we like, we all climb out and take the opportunity to stretch our legs. Rather than following the road we climb up along the path that we guess is where the vehicle is travelling.

walking up the hill
Jan leads the way as the group heads up the hill.

desert flowers
Some of the few flowers that we had the privilege of seeing at this altitude.

While the others reach a certain point and then begin to follow the road, there remains a hill ahead of me that becomes my challenge. After climbing half-way I can see that the group’s decision was correct, but my position provides a commanding view over the area and of the group as they wander back towards the 4wd.

a waiting jeep
Our group catches up to the jeep that is now waiting for them.

jeep driving down road
Continuing on towards Lake Canapa.

Laguna Canapa
Once we are all back aboard, we continue on to the place where we eat our lunch. Laguna Canapa is a large shallow lake that is home to hundreds of flamingos, surrounded by snow capped mountains.

lake canapa
Our view over Lake Canapa from our lunch table.

feeding flamingoes
Feeding together seems to be a popular option for the flamingoes.

While Wilson prepared our lunch on a table made of rocks bunched together, we all wandered down to the edge of the lake to watch the flamingos that were feeding there.

sunglasses reflection
Enjoying lunch by the lake.

Our jeep and lunch table
Situated beside Lake Canapa for lunch.

A guest came to our lunch while we were eating. In fact, we discovered that this little mouse was not alone, and all around us were dozens of little field mice.

field mouse
Our uninvited friend that lives in the rocks of our table.

flying flamingoes
Flamingoes flying between groups in the lake.

Laguna Hedionda, Laguna Chiar, Laguna Honda
After lunch we continued on the trail of lakes, passing by Lake Hedionda where we found even more flamingoes than in Lake Canapa. Lake Hedionda had a spongy edge to it, which sunk as we stepped onto it. Fortunately it remained dry, but felt really strange. The edge and waters gave the appearance that it was a thermal fed lake, which Wilson confirmed to us.

Lake Hedionda
Laguna Hedionda.

dozens of flamingoes
Far from the shore’s edge, these flamingoes were safe from tourists trying to get closer.

We passed other lakes also on our way into the desert areas, but none had so many flamingoes as the first two. All the way, as we continued along the dirt tracks deeper into the mountains, we kept climbing.

rear view of road travelled
Looking back over the tracks that we had travelled along.

grass tuffs
Some of the last grass and vegetation that we saw for a long time.

Desert Wanderings
Soon we had reached more than 5000 meters (16,500 feet) and were in the middle of a sandy desert. A few rocks were scattered here and there, but it was mostly sand, hard sand. We were very high here, and even walking came with a considerably increased effort.

rocky desert surface
Looking across the rocky desert surface.

At no time were we in a place without mountains on the horizons, but the spaces were always huge. Massive stretches of red, naked, dry, and dusty ground extended deep into the distance until meeting with the feet of giants, covered in snow. These giants were frequently those that formed the border between Bolivia and Chile, and were always powerful and magnificent in appearance.

everyone in the jeep
Everyone in the jeep and ready to start moving again.

Looking for Rabbits
From the top of the desert where we had parked, we could look down and see our next destination. A wall of rocks formed a very favourable home for Visachos, a larger type of rabbit that lived in the rocks of the deserts.

view back up to the desert
Looking back up the roads to the desert heights where we had just been.

Approaching the rocks we were all looking forward to finding some of these timid creatures, but after a lot of searching around the place it seemed that today they would allude us. We hung around for a while but when it turned out to be futile, everyone agreed that we should move on.

jeep next to rocks
We found not one rabbit willing to show itself while here.

It was the next day, while I was climbing the hill behind the thermal pools where we stopped for breakfast, that I discovered these viscachos. There were two of them sitting on the rocks, and they were so well camouflaged that I almost did not see them.

viscacho rabbit
A viscacho rabbit kindly pauses in front of some green where it can be clearly seen.

Fossilized Tree
The Arbol de Piedra (Tree of Rock) appeared with a cluster of other rocks in the middle of the desert. Out of the sands these rocks rose up, creating an series of interesting formations.

rock formations in the sand
Some of the rock formations rising up out of the sandy desert plains.

It was here that we discovered that one of our wheels had been punctured by a sharp rock and was partly deflated. The entire group stood around watching Wilson change the wheel, chatting and helping where they could.

group watching tyre changed
Everyone standing around to provide moral support for Wilson as he changes the damaged wheel.

Meanwhile I had found the highest rock formation in the area and discovered a way to climb it. The sights from here showed just how small we were in this wonder world of deserts surrounded by mountains. Everything was small, even the Tree of Rock, which was really big when I stood next to it.

view from big rock
My view from the tallest rock formation here.

tree of rock
The Arbol de Piedra does not really look like a tree, but it is pretty big.

 Working Together
Now that we had no spare wheel, if there was another puncture we would be left stranded in the middle of this hostile place. To work against this possibility, Wilson arranged with one of the other drivers to travel together to our next stop.

following vehicle
It was not too far that this jeep had to follow us until we reached our next destination.

So for the next half an hour we were trailed by another vehicle. All of the four-wheel drives out here are Toyota Landcruisers, as they are the only ones that last the distance. The LandRovers are also very good here, but the cost of maintenance for these cars are too much for most people in Bolivia, so the stranglehold that Toyota has here remains.

toyota jeep
Toyotas of all ages are the only vehicles found on these tours.

Laguna Colorada (Red Lake)
I had heard that we were going to see a lake that was red in colour, but I had little idea that this lake was going to be such a strong and vivid colour of red. Different minerals and algae in the waters cause it to appear red and the colour is stronger when the waters are stirred by a wind. There was a breeze blowing this afternoon.

red coloured lake
The colour of this lake is a very strong red.

In the lake were dozens upon dozens of flamingos. Most of them seemed to operate independently of the other, even though they hung out in groups together. They would stick their heads into the water and keep them there for long periods of time, feeding on things in the water. Most were walking on both of their legs while we were there, with very few standing on only one leg.

group of flamingoes
Just some of the hundreds of flamingoes that inhabited this lake.

Around the lake were large formations of a white substance. At first glance it looked just like large chunks of snow melt that was around the edges of the lake. However, in reality it was borax, a material that is used to manufacture many different products, including washing powders and soaps.

buildups of white borax
Borax buildups that look like snow melts.

Sleeping In High Places
Our home tonight was a place constructed specifically to house the tour groups passing through. Tonight there were six groups of us that stayed here, although we were all so tired that we did not bother to chat much with the others.

jeep in the desert
Heading towards our home for the night.

It was very early in the night that we all decided to go to bed. The high altitudes that we had travelled through had really drains us of energy, and by 9pm we are all in our beds.

setting sun
Watching the sun set from our final destination for the day.

We slept that night at 4200 meters altitude (14,000 feet), making breathing tough and sleeping almost impossible. It was a good thing that we were waking up at 4am in the morning, as I tossed and turned the whole night, finding it very hard to sleep at all, as did many others in our group.

Jan with biscuits in eyes
I am not sure if it was altitude sickness or if Jan is always like this.

We had seen some incredible sights today, and many of them replayed in my head as I lay there thinking about the day. Some things, such as this trip, seem to go so fast that they become almost like a distant memory before they have even ended. The photos are all that remain to remind me that these experiences were real.

enjoying dinner together
Everyone enjoys their dinner together with their own tour groups.